Roundtrip Tour: Circling Pittsburgh

Roundtrip Tour: Circling Pittsburgh
The bar in the sports-crazy college town of Morgantown, home to West Virginia University, had one of their televisions tuned, oddly enough, to the Weather Channel. Gnawing away at the wing of some unlucky flightless fowl and sipping from a stein of suds, I found myself paying more attention to a wind-battered reporter trying to relay a firsthand account of the summer's latest hurricane. I had hoped it would turn west, but she was heading north and, like it or not, it looked like I was going to be spending some quality time with Katrina.

Strolling back down High Street towards the Hotel Morgan, I was captivated by the beautiful summer night. The students had just returned from their summer break and the energy in the air was palpable. A warm, August breeze whipped between the office buildings carrying aromas of pub food and head-shop incense, and the sounds of laughter and music. I could make out the whoosh and smack of distant skateboard wheels going airborne and returning to concrete. Guys lacking the bravado to vocalize their admiration honked their horns at the pretty girls. But despite the warmth of the night and all its carefree resonance, a cold shiver of uncertainty crawled up my back.

The Joys of Summer

Televised images of the storm-battered Gulf Coast flickered across the darkened room in the morning. Some wake-up call that was, watching the hammering those folks were taking. Radar images showed the system's outer bands closing in, but the local commentators didn't think the impact here would be as bad as first anticipated. Still, they warned everyone to be prepared for heavy rain and possible flooding. Just the thing a traveling motorcyclist wants to hear. The sickly shaft of morning light that sneaked around the curtains indicated a clear sky was not in the offing. Oh, well - as they say, "a bad day on the bike beats a great day in the office."

The hotel's generous continental breakfast and a Starbucks red eye (java spiked with a shot of espresso) from the coffee shop in the lobby had me zinging and ready to face any impending gloom. I've always enjoyed visiting Morgantown. The Myers' Mountaineer roots run deep around here: My parents are WVU grads and I was born in the medical center on the other side of town. If not for the weather, I'd gladly while away a few hours just soaking up the college vibe. But it was looking like today would be a race with a storm whose clouds had already flopped over Morgantown like a damp mattress. My first stop was in New Castle, Pennsylvania, about two hours north, but that's certainly not the real ride time elapsed when using the back roads. So, the sooner I left the better, if I stood any chance of outrunning the impending deluge.

Thumping west out of Morganton, the Harley carried me through Cassville and Blacksville, then on over to Route 250. A quick right on 69 and I headed into Pennsylvania. Having a go at your intuitive navigational skills is a blast in this part of the Keystone State, as cartography, at best, is an inexact science here. The best strategy for staying on course seems to be taking the roads named for the next town on the map. If there hadn't been a storm hot on my heels, this area would be an idyllic place to go ahead and get lost. All along these small, lineless roads that weave a seemingly haphazard stitch across lush green fields and over sparkling creeks, it feels like time has slowed to a crawl. The quiet and solitude are broken only by the occasional lowing of a distant cow and the crack of a Harley restarting, its journey north a necessity, not a choice.

Coming up on Claysville, I crossed under I-70 where the harsh contrast between the preceding miles and modernity slaps me like a wet leather glove. Along with the ugliness and sterility of super-slab services, the actuality of riding in the rain began to rear its ugly head. It had been a game run for the end zone, but when Katrina's outer bands got hold of my ankle, I knew it wouldn't be long before the rest of the team caught up and piled on. After quickly ingesting something burger-ish way too close to the big road, I continued my journey through a foggy mist slowly earning its drizzle stripes. Then on Route 18 in Atlasburg, the rain gear finally came out.

The rate of rainfall gradually increased as I made my way through Frankfort Springs and Hooksville, but once I'd crossed the Ohio River in Shippingport, tropical depression Katrina had swept in, with the rain coming down so hard I could barely see my side of the windshield. The view of the road beyond was reduced to a winding, murky haze intermittently sliced with muddy runnels of rainwater overflowing the drainage ditches. More often felt than seen, these "today-only" creeks spawned wakes spraying from the nearly swamped front tire. Waiting this one out could take hours, so I cautiously pushed on, knowing there was a warm, dry room waiting just outside New Castle.

After what felt like a week under a fire hose, I could see a blur of buildings materializing on the soaked horizon. I made it. Stopping to procure a much-deserved bottle of R-rated grape juice, I asked the cashier if he knew the whereabouts of the Jacqueline House Bed and Breakfast. He didn't, but the guy in line behind me stopped cracking on my drenched condition long enough to tell me he knew. His thoroughgoing ribbing about my riding in the worst weather suddenly took a backseat, and he practically demanded that I follow him to my destination, worried, he said, that I might take a wrong turn in a construction zone up the street. The guy wouldn't take no for an answer and even claimed he was going right by the place on his way to a friend's house. I sensed he was fibbing about that, but I was happy someone was looking out for me. That's how it is with the folks I met in western Pennsylvania. They'll gladly pipe up with sarcastic jabs, but underneath those gruff exteriors they're all about helping out.

It's a good thing that Ida and John Felix, the proprietors of the Jacqueline House Bed and Breakfast, have a good sense of humor. As they're welcoming me, my rain gear simulated the gale on their foyer floor. Brain-soaked too, I apologized for not peeling off on the porch before entering. I was extremely tired and just thankful I had made it there in one piece; but later, dry and comfortably situated on the front porch, I thought, as awful as riding in a driving rain is, it's remarkable how quickly all that harrowing stuff melts away when there's a nice glass of wine in your hand.